Anthony Mason, Senior Associate INLOGOV
The American author Henry Miller is supposed to have said “we create our fate every day . . . most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour”. Funnily enough, if you use a well-known search engine to try to find where and when he recorded this weary aphorism, you end up with pages of circular references to quotation lists. But given his complex love life (five wives and many lovers) it sounds just like the sort of thing he should have said, whether or not he did.
Those local authorities currently in deep negotiations around devolution deals or on complex partnerships with health organisations should hear Miller’s (supposed) words ringing in their ears. INLOGOV has recently completed research for the District Councils’ Network to look at a range of partnerships either led by or centred on districts. The resulting report “Building Better Collaboration” is now available from INLOGOV’s website. It was launched – perhaps appropriately – at a joint district/county summit on devolution in two tier areas.
One of our roles is to ensure that relevant research is given a practical application, so the study draws on a considerable body of academic material about partnership working to stress that individuals who will be good at collaborative working can too often be hidden away in vertical structures. “Boundary spanners” and “collaborative champions” are needed in every partnership and need to be identified, developed and encouraged.
We identify five organisational behaviours/attributes that seem to be disproportionately important in determining the success or failure of collaborative ventures: leadership, selflessness, trust, momentum and risk. Of these, the most significant for project outcomes seem to be: “audacious” early leadership; trust – grounded in an organisational culture of self-awareness; and momentum – where too many projects proceed at the speed of the slowest partner.
We noticed that in many of the partnerships we reviewed, there was at least one partner that seemed to put in much more than it could ever expect to get out in measureable benefits. We termed that selfless behaviour and the term captures something of the particular contribution that the best districts can make to partnership working. We explored why this was so – and in a way, the answer is a simple one: for districts, selflessness is actually role-appropriate behaviour. Districts represent local communities and geographies; and so minding their local interest in collaborative projects must be “creating their fate…through their own behaviours”.
As you find so often, there is a flip-side to selflessness heard in the charge of parochialism levelled at a few districts, especially by some business voices. Districts might reflect that being only champions of the local can have downsides – especially where a wide range of interests have to be reconciled for the common good, for example around a combined authority bid.
We suggest that the national local government bodies – the LGA, CCN and DCN can do much more to model good collaborative practice. Where this goes wrong, they might reflect that “…most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour.”
Anthony Mason is a senior associate at INLOGOV where he specialises in consultancy around partnership and collaboration. He started his career in local government and then spent more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy practice. His professional background is in housing and neighbourhood regeneration.